Editor's note: This is one of a series of Q&As StateTech has conducted with state election officials and cybersecurity experts on election security. To read our Q&A with Adam Clayton Powell III, the executive director of the University of Southern California’s Election Cybersecurity Initiative, click here. And to read our Q&A with Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, click here.
As the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded, there have been numerous calls from both state officials and nonprofit groups to increase the use of mail-in voting to protect public health and ensure citizens have access to voting if they do not want to vote in person at a polling station.
Oregon is no stranger to voting by mail, since it became the first state to make mail-in ballots the standard voting system for elections back in 2000. Despite the lengthy experience the Beaver State has with voting by mail, the state isn’t taking any chances when it comes to election security.
Recently, StateTech spoke with Peter Threlkel, director of information services for the Oregon Secretary of State, about the state’s approach to election cybersecurity, the lessons learned from the primary season and how the state is handling security amid the pandemic.
STATETECH: How did the primary season unfold, and what lessons did Oregon learn from it?
THRELKEL: We’d been watching what was going on in other states and we were thankful in Oregon that we’ve been using the paper ballots by mail for the last 20-plus years. So, a lot of things that were happening in other states, where you have the long lines at the polling place and you had the states trying to run expanding absentee ballot requests while still supporting all the places, that’s just not something that Oregon has had to deal with for a generation now because we’ve had them vote by mail for so long.
We were really able to avoid a lot of that. You really have to feel for those other states, trying to do that during the pandemic, and the voters as well. Here, you can use your ballot in the mail: You fill it out and drop it back in the mail. This year, the state provided return postage just to make it even easier for citizens to get the votes in. And for those who go into the counties, they’re a little bit more of a controlled environment because it’s just the county election staff coming in and opening up the ballots, checking the signatures and then counting the ballots, running them through the machine.
We didn’t observe or see any issues this year here in Oregon. One of the main things that we’ve tried to pay attention to and watch for is the risk of ransomware. And that’s always a concern. If one of the offices or the counties or some area were to get their computers locked up, that would be a struggle.